I’m a little muzzy this morning from last night’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Party (oh yes, the writer’s life is a fabulous one) but one thing I definitely remember from last night was a conversation in which I was recommending Ron Charles’ hilarious video reviews to somebody. Since that person’s identity has now fled my mind, I thought I might use that conversation as an excuse to post his rather fabulous review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Unfortunately Ron’s taking a breather from producing them for a while, but if you’d like to see more you can visit The Washington Post’s Totally Hip Book Review page or Ron’s Youtube Channel. In the meantime, enjoy!
Posts from the ‘Media’ Category
As most of you will be aware, last night Julian Assange surrendered to police in London on sexual assault charges. Like many others I’m deeply perturbed by this development, especially given the pretty clear evidence the charges are weak at best and that the Swedish Government (which has been significantly embarrassed by the revelations in the latest round of document dumps) has interfered with the process underlying them.
For what it’s worth, my views about Wikileaks are complex. I’m not convinced total transparency is either practical or desirable. But by the same token confidentiality and control over the flow of information is one of the tools governments and other interests employ to control the public and manipulate public discourse and opinion.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying Wikileaks is an imperfect creation, but one of immense importance. It heralds a profound rewriting of the relationship between the individual and the state, the governed and the governing. By fatally undermining the capacity of the powerful to mislead the public it embodies precisely the values a free media – and by extension a free society – should aspire to.
This is not to say it’s perfect. Unlike the evidence of malfeasance and illegal action by governments around the world, I’m unconvinced much of the tattle in the diplomatic cables is valuable or newsworthy. But that’s not an argument against Wikileaks more generally: freedom of expression and a free media necessarily assumes ongoing debate about the limits of public interest, and commensurately, errors in judgement about those limits. A free media is by its nature a ragged and disputational creature.
Part of what makes Wikileaks genuinely revolutionary is its refusal to accept that there is a public interest beyond the right to know. By rejecting this notion they also reject the collusive relationship with power that undermines the effectiveness of so much media. This fundamentally alters many aspects of our public discourse, and will, over time, alter the very nature of society, both for the better and, I suspect, the worse. It is also, to my mind, an unsustainable and utopian ideal: the proper functioning of democratic society is incompatible with total transparency. But by redefining the limits of our right to know it creates a new standard to which free societies should aspire, and simultaneously provides a disruptive corollary to that freedom which will help safeguard it.
That our politicians have been slow to grasp the larger implications of Wikileaks is hardly surprising. I think it’s increasingly obvious we’re in a moment of historical transition, a transition which will be shaped both by forces beyond our control, such as climate change, and by the economic and social effects of new technology and global media. Neither our governments nor our political and social institutions are showing much sign of being up to either set of challenges, and our politicians are manifestly inadequate to both.
Here in Australia the response has been slipshod and cynical, demonstrating the worst aspects of the Labor Party’s increasingly reactionary and paternalistic mindset. Prime Minister Julia Gillard looked ridiculous last week parroting the American line that Assange was a criminal, and compounded the blunder yesterday with her assertion that the release of information was illegal because it relied upon an illegal act.
The exact seriousness of the threat to Assange is unclear, and will in the first instance depend upon whether British courts uphold an extradition order to return him to Sweden. What is clear is that a writer and journalist has been imprisoned on charges which are self-evidently connected to his work as a writer and journalist, and to his part in revealing evidence of illegal and unethical behaviour by the powerful. In such a context the obligation upon the Australian government, and indeed all people who claim to support freedom of expression and the free media is to protest as loudly and as vociferously as possible.
Having been involved off and on with Sydney PEN Centre over the years, I’m painfully aware of the difficulty of embarrassing governments which abuse freedom of expression. But I’m also aware that protesting does help, and that despite its statements to date, the Australian Government and Prime Minister Gillard may yet see their way to do what is right by Assange.
To this end I was one of the more than 200 people who signed the open letter to Prime Minister Gillard by Jeff Sparrow and Lizzie O’Shea that was published on the ABC’s The Drum yesterday.
Open letters of this sort always seem to me to be oddly quixotic creations, more symbolic of the powerlessness of those who sign than any real influence. But this time I’m not so sure. As of a moment ago there were more than 4000 comments, and the response was overwhelmingly supportive. That’s not to say there aren’t detractors, but it’s difficult not to wonder whether Assange’s newfound celebrity will prove a lightning rod for the changes that are clearly beginning to take place. As the events of the last two and a bit years and from the GFC on in particular have demonstrated, the rules that have defined our world for the best part of half a century are breaking down, and the relationship between the public and those in authority is growing increasingly poisonous.
This isn’t always a good thing – certainly the crazed, reactionary convulsions of the Australian and American political landscapes in 2010 have not made our societies happier or suggested our politicians and media have any real idea about how to deal with what’s happening. But it’s also increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the ground is shifting beneath our feet.
Having said all that I’d like to ask three things. The first is that you visit The Drum and read Jeff and Lizzie’s letter, which makes a series of unexceptional demands relating to Assange’s rights as an Australian citizen, and the obligations of the Australian Government to safeguard his liberty. As it indicates at the beginning, many of the signatories are not uncritical of the larger Wikileaks project, but the principles set out in the letter transcend those differences.
The second is that you take a few minutes to read some of the better commentary about Wiileaks. I’m going to suggest you begin with Assange’s own essays about authoritarianism, conspiracy and transparency. As anyone who reads them will be able to see, Assange is neither a terrorist nor a Cold War villain out of a James Bond movie, but a serious thinker with profound and revolutionary ideas about the relationship between the state and information. If the essays themselves seem too daunting I’d urge you to at the very least skim the analysis of their content on zunguzungu.
I’d also suggest reading three pieces by Guy Rundle, Bernard Keane and Clay Shirky, all of which offer interesting and provocative perspectives on the question (Rundle and Shirky in particular do useful work placing the events of recent weeks in historical context and trying to think through their larger implications).
You should also be sure you read Assange’s op-ed in this morning’s Australian, which was written in the hours before his arrest. Given The Australian’s behaviour and pronouncements during the Groggate and TwitDef scandals of recent weeks it may come as a surprise to many that it’s clearly placing its not inconsiderable weight behind Assange (though perhaps not as big a surprise as it may have been to many of its subscribers, who are no doubt choking on their cereal as I type). But I’m not sure it’s that surprising, not just because it’s a reminder of the The Australian’s more general mercurialness, but because as Assange himself points out, a belief in the importance of a free and unfettered media is one of News Limited’s fundamental principles (even if it’s not always demonstrated by their actions or drive for market dominance).
Finally, the third thing I’d like you to do is suggest things you’ve seen or read that add substantially to this debate. I’m sure the days and weeks to come will produce a torrent of coverage, and it’s be nice to aggregate – or indeed wiki – it here. So if you have links, bring them; I want to see them.
Just a quick note to say my article about blogging from the most recent issue of Australian Author is now online. It’s basically a personal piece, exploring the way working online has affected the way I think about both my writing and my life as a writer, but it covers some of the same ground Alison Croggon explores in her recent piece for The Drum, ‘The Return of the Amateur Critic’, which is also well worth reading.
As I say in the piece:
Blogging has made me feel as if I’m part of something. To call it a movement is probably going a bit far, but it wouldn’t be entirely incorrect. Because like Twitter, blogging is only one facet of a much more profound transformation of the way we think about reading and writing that is being driven by technology, a process of transformation that isn’t just allowing a host of exciting new writers to emerge, but is actually giving birth to a host of new literary forms, and changing many existing ones, driving a blurring of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, genre and the literary, even the printed word and more visual forms such as the graphic novel . . . Read more
I’ve somewhat belatedly realised today is Australian Literary Review day. As usual selected highlights are available online, including the Pascal Award-winning Mark Mordue on Bret Easton Ellis’ Imperial Bedroom (which I’ve been meaning to try and compose some thoughts on myself) and a number of pieces linked to the election, of which the most significant is probably Christine Jackman’s piece on Annabel Crabb, David Marr and Nicholas Stuart’s books about Kevin Rudd. ALR Editor Stephen Romei’s Editorial is also online.
Reading Stephen’s Editorial has also reminded me that next week is the Walkley Foundation’s Annual Conference, which this year is focussed on narrative. Given it’s smack in the middle of the penultimate week of the election campaign it’s possible it’s not the most perfectly timed media conference in history, but it’s still got a pretty fantastic line-up. Featured international speakers include author and academic, Jay Rosen (the man behind PressThink), political blogger, John Nichols, South African activist and academic Harry Dugmore and NBC News Correspondent Bob Dotson. There’s also a host of Australian speakers, including Charlotte Wood, Malcolm Knox, Kerry O’Brien, Laurie Oakes, Annabel Crabb and Lawrie Zion.
I’m appearing on two panels on Wednesday 11 August, ‘Writing in the Internet Age’ at 11:40am with Jay Rosen, Crikey! Editor Sophie Black and Meanjin Editor and author, Sophie Cunningham, and ‘The Critics Speak’ at 3:30pm with Jenny Tabakoff, Stephen Romei and Sydney Morning Herald Literary Editor, Susan Wyndham. It looks like a fantastic program, so with luck I’ll see at least some of you there.
More information is available on the Walkley Conference website.
Given the turmoil of the last 36 hours, I’m guessing more than a few of you will have missed the fact that today marks the passing of one of Australia’s pioneering new media ventures, New Matilda.
Six years ago, when it began, I was pretty dismissive of New Matilda. It wasn’t that I didn’t think there was a place for a left-of-centre online magazine, but the early issues always seemed depressingly worthy to me. Whether I’d make the same judgement now I don’t know; what I do know is that over the last couple of years the magazine has really come into its own. Certainly if one wanted a demonstration of the way in which new media now consistently outclasses the old in terms of analysis and commentary, you couldn’t find a better example than Ben Eltham, a writer whose pieces have been distinguished by their clarity, intelligence and grasp of detail for some time. I’d say something similar about Jason Wilson, whose astringent commentary on media and politics has grown steadily sharper over the last couple of years.
That’s not to say I think the magazine was perfect. Charles Firth’s epitaph, ‘Why I Never Liked New Matilda’, overplays its hand, but he’s right to home in on how old-fashioned its model seems in 2010. It’s simply not possible for a website focussed on news and commentary to be as static as New Matilda. The continuing success of Crikey! demonstrates that it’s still possible to make the idea of discrete issues work, but Crikey! comes out daily, not weekly, and in the last couple of years their site has become a highly effective aggregator of other people’s content.
The problem is money. As Margaret Simons pointed out in a sobering piece on Crikey!, when it comes to converting eyes into dollars and cents new media suffers from precisely the same problems as old media. New media’s advocates tend to sneer derisively about the business model of the newspapers being broke, but the fact is we don’t have one to replace it.
That’s not to say there aren’t models out there. In the US several independent news outlets have developed viable businesses, some through mixtures of subscription and advertising, others by employing more innovative schemes (you’ll find a good precis of the situation in the US in Michael Massing’s pieces ‘The News About the Internet’ and ‘A New Horizon for the News’, both of which appeared in The New York Review of Books last year). And locally Crikey! seems to go from strength to strength. But the brutal reality is that we still don’t know how to make online media pay well enough to underwrite either quality or quantity.
It’s a problem that’s exacerbated by Australia’s relatively small population. Independent media outfits in the US have access to a market of close to 300 million people, to say nothing of the many in other countries who take interest in American affairs. Independent media in Australia has access to less than 10% of that number. That means that while costs are likely to be similar, potential revenue from advertising and other sources is only ever going to be a fraction of that available to similar operations overseas.
One solution might be to give away the notion that writers and commentators should be paid. Obviously I have a vested interest in this question, but I think there are good reasons not to give away the notion that writers should be paid for their work. That’s not to say the traditional nexus between word count and fee needs to be maintained. Indeed I’d suggest that by its nature a lot of what goes on in new media is better suited to payment on retainer.
The question then is one of revenue, or more accurately, funding. Like literary magazines, independent media, both online and in print, is usually at least partly underwritten by institutional and private benefactors. But that sort of money only goes so far, and beyond that the same old questions begin to intrude.
New Matilda’s editor, Marni Cordell, is making brave noises about rebuilding the magazine’s financial model from the ground up. I hope she succeeds. In the meantime I’d just like to salute her and her team for their work over the past few years, and say they’ll be missed.
It’s not often a literary story gets above the fold on the front page, but yesterday Bryce Courtenay managed it by serving up an extended spray at Peter Carey in Crikey!. Beginning by observing, “Peter Carey is a perfect example of . . . inane literary snobbery,” Courtenay goes on to deride Carey’s sales figures (“[i]f I’m a popular writer then Peter Carey is an unpopular writer . . . [i]f I’m a best-selling writer than he’s a worst-selling writer”), his education (“my education is every bit as good as Peter’s, possibly better”), the “self-perpetuating club” of government-funded snobs who force students to read books they hate instead of books they love (presumably the latter is code for books by Bryce Courtenay), before really throwing down the gauntlet by declaring, “unequivocally I could write his kind of stuff”.
Unfortunately the article itself is only available to subscribers, though as Stephen Romei points out over at A Pair of Ragged Claws, if you’re desperate to read it in its entirety you can always take out a trial subscription for free. That said, I’m not sure the full piece adds a lot to what’s above.
Courtenay’s remarks were prompted by Carey’s argument in both his closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and in his appearance on ABC 1’s Q&A that there is a connection to be made between declining educational standards, the rise of popular fiction, and the increasing triviality of public debate, vectors which, in combination, are eroding the foundations of civil society. Put simply, “[w]e are getting dumber every day, we are really literally forgetting how to read . . . consuming cultural junk . . . is completely destructive of democracy”.
Putting aside the rights and wrongs of Carey’s argument (for what it’s worth, I have sympathy with a lot of what he says, but the issues he’s touching upon are complex and deserve rather fuller attention than I’m able to give them now), what interests me about Courtenay’s spray (aside from how utterly self-serving it is) is that it’s part of a rather larger shift in the cultural landscape, and one which is connected to the sorts of issues I was discussing a while back in a post about the rise of genre.
Back then I was arguing that the retreat of the “literary” can be understood, at least in part, in terms of the loss of the critical vocabulary that enables us to make meaningful judgements about quality. That’s partly about changes in what and how students are taught, partly about a broader unease about imposing cultural judgements, and partly about the rise of the consumer/reader which is being driven by consumer capitalism and the manner in which the internet is breaking down traditional loci of cultural authority. In such a context it becomes very difficult to mount a defence to the argument that the real test of a book’s quality is its popularity.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I actually don’t think the test of a book’s quality is its popularity. Nor that I don’t think much of Courtenay’s books (and yes, I’ve read several of them). But I’m not sure that makes me a snob, and neither does it mean I’m riven with envy about the hordes of readers who throw themselves at the feet of the Bryce Courtenays of the world. Quite the reverse in fact: I have immense respect for many “popular” writers.
What it does mean is that I think there are many forms of literary expression and literary pleasure, and while I respect the skill and craft of a writer such as George Pelecanos or James Lee Burke, that doesn’t preclude me from dismissing Dan Brown (for instance) as crap. Nor (and I think this is the point of Carey’s Courtenay completely fails to engage with) does it stop me from believing that serious writing is important, both because it makes intellectual and moral demands of us, and because it enlarges our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit by doing so. I’m not sure I agree that the chatter of the new world, and the changes in our reading habits are necessarily or purely corrosive, but I do think the increasing antipathy to writing that forces us to think , and the celebration of writing that exists purely to entertain is. We all know the increasingly trivial and self-serving nature of the media is bad for public life, so why is literature any different? Because that is, in the end, what Courtenay and others like him are claiming.
Obviously I’m keen to hear your views on all of this, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct you to Tony Martin’s hilarious rant about the odious Lee Child’s performance on First Tuesday Book Club a few weeks back. You think Bryce is bad? Wait till you see Child in action.
I’m not sure anything’s brightened my day up lately quite as much as the weekend’s news that Mark Mordue has been awarded the 2010 Pascall Prize for Critical Writing. Set up in 1988 in memory of the journalist Geraldine Pacall, the prize is Australia’s only major award for critical writing or reviewing, and is awarded in recognition of a significant contribution “to public appreciation, enjoyment and understanding of the area or areas of the arts in which he or she is involved”.
I know Mark a bit, so it’s difficult not to feel pleased for him at a personal level, especially since he’s one of the world’s good people. But it’s also exciting because I’ve long been an admirer of Mark’s writing. Mark is – in the best sense of the word – a Romantic. In a time when people are increasingly uneasy talking about the transformative power of art, Mark embraces it, both as a writer and a critic.
There’s something salutary about being reminded that books and films and music matter, in some deep sense, but Mark’s writing goes one step further, and makes itself an expression of the same belief in the transformative power of art.
I almost always find the results both fascinating and strangely intense. Whether Mark’s writing about Nick Cave, John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road, or growing up in Newcastle, he’s always also questing after a sort of transcendence in his own writing as well. And that, to my mind, is what makes him so exciting to read, since in so doing he puts himself at risk. Which is, in a way, the most important thing you can ask of a critic (or indeed any writer): that they be prepared to demand the same things of themselves they demand of their subjects.
Anyway, I’ll stop raving. My heartfelt congratulations to Mark, and kudos to the judges for a great choice. And if you’re not familiar with Mark’s writing I heartily recommend checking out his website (which looks like it’s been a bit dormant for a while). And if you haven’t read his wonderfully unconventional travel narrative/memoir, Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip, try and lay your hands on a copy.
After a very rewarding morning washing a tub of Vaseline out of my three year-old’s hair (in case you’re interested shampoo is useless but talcum powder and then shampoo seems to have helped) I thought I’d chuck up a few links to liven up your Sunday.
The first is a delicious new site called Autocomplete Me, which I found via Spike (who found it via The Millions), which uses the Google’s autocomplete function as a device to peer into the murky depths of the collective subconscious. Having confessed before to the voyeuristic pleasures of eavesdropping on other people’s search terms it’s the sort of site I can’t help but enjoy, but I challenge anybody not to be both fascinated and bemused by the fragmentary glimpses of people’s private worlds the site throws up. Some are cute (“What do you feed a Yeti anyway?”), a lot are weird (“Cheese is the devil’s plaything”) and some are just plain worrying (“I’ve just had a conversation with my cat in the shower about pancakes. We both like them a lot”).
I also thought in the light of my post a few weeks back about the death of the letter it might be worth pointing to Stacy Schiff’s wonderful review of Thomas Mallon’s equally wonderful-sounding Yours Ever: People and their Letters, a book written in the shadow of the disappearance of the form to which it is devoted. Schiff reads Mallon’s book as an elegy for a dying art, suggesting in closing:
“It is next to impossible to read these pages without mourning the whole apparatus of distance, without experiencing a deep and plangent longing for the airmail envelope, the sweetest shade of blue this side of a Tiffany box. Is it possible to sound crusty or confessional electronically? It is as if text and e-mail messages are of this world, a letter an attempt, however illusory, to transcend it. All of which adds tension and resonance to Mallon’s pages, already crackling with hesitations and vulnerabilities, obsessions and aspirations, with reminders of the lost art of literary telepathy, of the aching, attenuated rhythm of a written correspondence.”
To which, my suggestion that blogs and Twitter might, in a very small way, be replacing the letter notwithstanding, I can only say, ‘Amen’.
And finally, a little Sunday song. I know this video’s done the rounds a lot of times already, I know it’s just marketing, but it’s a wonderful thing all the same. Enjoy.
On Friday a journalist friend rang looking for some comments about the death of the letter. The story grew out of reports of a sharp decline in the use of snail mail, and having already spoken to historian Les Carlyon and linguist Sue Butler, both of whom had made the usual noises about the loss of a form which has allowed us to communicate complex thought and emotion for many generations, he wanted a literary perspective on the question.
Before I go any further I should say that I agree, at least generally, with the remarks by Carlyon and Butler which are quoted in the article. The letter is a remarkable form, not just because of its capacity to record the feelings and impressions of the moment for posterity, but because it is a form that has always been as much about a process of self-creation and exploration as communication.
In a way that shouldn’t be surprising. The act of writing isn’t simply about putting thoughts down on paper, it’s about a process of thought. And, as a result, the process of writing a letter allows us to explore thoughts and ideas we might not be able to express or even access in everyday life. Indeed in a very real sense, writing letters is less about communication than the creation of a self through the act of writing. Usually these selves are freer, smarter, sometimes they’re something like our best self, more often they’re versions of our everyday self which only find their true expression on the page. It’s a process you see at work in the correspondence of writers such as Philip Larkin or Flaubert, both of whom were capable of being scatological and filthy with one friend, and considered and thoughtful with another. Or in the epistolary relationship between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, a relationship in which both revealed aspects of themselves they concealed from everyone else.
But the thing that struck me while I was talking to my friend on Friday, was that despite the passing of the letter, these are exactly the same processes one sees at work when people blog, or tweet, or even update their Facebook statuses. In all cases they’re projecting versions of themselves outwards, and in so doing engaging in the same processes of self-invention that once went on in correspondence. The only real difference is that they’re doing it in public, or at least semi-public.
Obviously there’s nothing particularly radical about observing that technology is altering our notions of identity. But it does suggest that the usual anxieties provoked by the passing of cultural forms and institutions are at least partly misplaced in this context.
More importantly though, it’s a reminder that the transition from the written letter to email isn’t simply a story about changing technology. It’s part of a much larger story about the way technology is redefining the boundaries between our public and private selves. It’s not a neutral process by any means, and its effects can be seen in the increasing anxiety about the management of confidential information, in the arguments about the use (and abuse) of surveillance technologies, and even in the rise of celebrity culture. But it’s also a story that’s as much about possibility as decline, something which can be obscured when one concentrates on only one aspect of the story.
Just a reminder that The Australian Literary Review is free in today’s Australian. As usual some of the highlights are online, not least Delia Falconer’s review of J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime and Michael Wood’s look at Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, but as usual the bulk of it is only available in the print edition (though over at Australian Literature Diary Kerryn Goldsworthy attempts to straddle that divide with some thoughts about her print-only review of Cate Kennedy’s new novel, The World Beneath).
So what are you waiting for? Go out and grab The Oz and do yourself a favour.
The current issue of The New York Review of Books includes an excellent piece by Michael Massing about the future of news. In contrast to the angst and aggro that often surrounds the subject, Massing’s piece is laudably clear and uncoloured by either Wired-style techno-utopianism or stupidly reactive declaratons about the enduring importance of newspapers and the frivolousness and pointlessness of new media forms such as blogging.
To his credit Massing seeks to tease out the increasingly symbiotic relationship between bloggers and conventional journalists, and to emphasize the increasing role bloggers are playing in breaking news, both as part of the daily news cycle and in a more sophisticated, investigative mode. And, interestingly, he suggests the real danger in the shift to decentralized modes of news gathering and dissemination is less about the loss of the resources of the major media companies, and more about the sort of echo-chamber effect that too often predominates on the net, in which people balkanize into self-reinforcing conclaves of shared opinion.
In a way, of course, Massing’s article is a counterpiece to Clay Shirky’s now-famous article, ‘Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable’, which argued that the current convulsions in our media landscape are analogous to the convulsions which reshaped European society in the years following the invention of the printing press. Indeed Massing pushes Shirky’s argument one step further, suggesting a further analogy between the printing press’ role in loosening the grip of the Catholic Church on medieval society and the manner in which blogging and new media are undermining corporate and government control of the flow of ideas in contemporary society.
I don’t think either Massing or Shirky would argue they know what the future of media looks like. But as both make clear, we’re beginning to see some of its outlines. Fewer large media companies and fewer newspapers. More rapid dissemination of opinion and ideas. A shift away from professionalized news-gathering and opinion towards news-gathering and dissemination by amateur or non-traditional sources. The increasing predominance of news services defined by their ideological positions.
All of these make many of those familiar with old media such as newspapers deeply uncomfortable, just as the rise of television news has traditionally unsettled those who give primacy to the sorts of values that are supposed to prevail in print journalism. Yet for my part I’m broadly optimistic about the future. Partly this is about my feeling that newspapers have never been the paragons of liberty their defenders claim them to be. But it’s also about recognizing that what’s happening is, in some sense, inevitable and evolutionary. As the technological underpinnings of our society change, so will our society, and there’s a level at which it’s better to see that as a positive, rather than fighting a rearguard action you’re destined to lose. What’s happening is painful, but it’s also exciting, and creates new possibilities on every side.
None of which is to say I don’t have concerns about how we manage the process, not the least of which is the question of how we manage to finance new media organizations capable of breaking news and carrying out investigative journalism in smaller countries such as Australia. Massing goes to some lengths to point out that rather than being parasitic, as they are often accused of being, increasing numbers of American political bloggers are now generating sufficient revenue to take on larger and more complex stories, involving considerable research and travel.
This revenue seems to be being drawn from a range of sources, but the bulk of it still seems to be coming from donations. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but I do wonder whether it’s a model we’re capable of replicating in Australia, a country with a significantly smaller population than the USA, and a far less established philanthropic tradition.
This isn’t to say there aren’t already groups in Australia seeking to develop models to enable such projects. I mentioned Swinburne University’s new fund to support public interest journalism a while back, and there are certainly other such projects in development.
But I think there’s little question the difficulties associated with setting up and financing new media outfits in Australia are exponentially greater than in the US. While it’s partly a legacy of its history, it seems telling that the one really successful Australian non-traditional news organization, Crikey!, runs on a subscription model, rather than by allowing free access to all its content and financing that through advertising or other sources.
Some have suggested the solution is some form of state funding, whether via direct subsidy of the sort the French Government has offered the French newspapers, grant-based funding of the sort employed in the cultural sector, or some sort of public trust model. For myself, I’d be very surprised if any of these models were either politically palatable or even particularly workable, though I’d be lying if I said I knew what the alternatives were. But it does seem to me the question of how we finance new media news services in a small country such as Australia is a real issue, and one the American or even the British experience is unlikely to offer answers to.
I’ve been meaning to do a follow-up on my post about literary hatchet jobs for a while now, but the story in yesterday’s Gawker about Alice Hoffmann’s colossal dummy-spit (or is that dummy-twit?) is so hilarious I can’t hold back any longer. As the story explains, Hoffman took great exception to what sounds like a classic “mixed” review, and proceeded to slag off the reviewer on Twitter, even going so far as to twit the reviewer’s phone number and suggest people ring her up and set her straight. Hoffman is now backtracking, but it’s a little difficult to come back from “Now any idiot can be a critic”.
What’s particularly striking is that it’s only one of several cases of writers losing their cool about reviews in recent weeks. Last week MediaBistro reported that Alain de Botton (who I once heard a middle-aged lesbian describe as the thinking woman’s crumpet) took violent exception to Caleb Crain’s review of his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, taking time out from his clearly hectic schedule to blast Crain in the comments section of Crain’s blog, Steamboats are Ruining Everything (Botton’s killer barb? “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make”). And in a rather more succinct comment upon a review of her new book, author Ayelet Waldman twitted, “May Jill Lepore rot in hell. That is all”.
Of course there’s a long and (ig)noble tradition of authors slagging off critics. But I suspect there’s a good chance these rather undignified displays say as much about people’s unfamiliarity with the technology as anything. With any new form of communication it takes a while to learn what’s smart and what’s not (ask yourself how long it too you to learn not to email when angry, or to reply all carelessly). And if there was ever a technology for which the old adage, flame in haste, repent at leisure was appropriate, it’s Twitter (at least with Facebook status updates you have some control over who’s listening, and you can quietly delete them if you think you’ve gone too far). Certainly the rapidity with which the story of Hoffman and de Botton’s dummy-spits has spread is a reminder of the capacity of the online world to regulate itself, and of the democratizing nature of the net more generally. Indeed I suspect Hoffman and de Botton’s real crime isn’t being intemperate, but assuming their status as authors gave them the right to be uncivil (that and the fact they look ridiculous).
Of course I would say that. I’ve always cleaved to Disraeli’s famous dictum, “Never explain, never complain”, and while I’ve had plenty of reviews I could have done without, my general view is that it’s not just undignified to get into a stoush with a reviewer, it’s a fight you’re almost guaranteed to lose. At best you’ll give a bad review oxygen, at worst you’ll look petulant and egomaniacal.
Of course de Botton and others might argue that in the new media environment the relationship between writers and critics is altering, and there’s now a place for more direct discussion and engagement. And they’d probably be right, at least with respect to non-fiction, though as I’ve observed above, authors who assume their status as authors grants them any particular cultural authority are likely to be pretty quickly disabused of that notion. Indeed at a very crude level the shift from physical books and newspapers to electronic books and websites is eroding the distinction between the cultural authority of different media, and promoting a situation where what matters is the quality of your commentary, not the publishing house behind you, or your visibility on bookshop shelves.
But I think the situation is very different with fiction. I’ve spent years avoiding explaining my books in interviews (contextualize, expand upon, talk about process, but never, if you can help it, explain them) partly out of a deep, and essentially uncritical unease with doing so, and partly out of a view that to do so reduces them somehow. However often my views about other aspects of writing change, I’ve always believed novels and stories are living things: mysterious, ineffable, prismatic, and that while writers may be required to promote them, ultimately the book will take on its own life separate from them. It’s possible our culture is increasingly inimical to that sort of indeterminacy, but take it away and a work of fiction is inevitably, and fatally, reduced.
For those wanting to read more about the Hoffman/de Botton imbroglio, Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams has a few choice words to say on the subject, and later, on Ayelet Waldman’s intemperate remarks. The Literary Saloon also has views on the matter, as do The Afterword and Edward Champion (thanks to GalleyCat for the links). Likewise Motoko Rich has some interesting reactions in The New York Times. And if you want to see Alain de Botton repenting at leisure, you can read the excerpts from his twitterfeed at The New York Observer.
This is brilliant. Painful, cruel, almost unwatchable, but brilliant.
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